Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli – Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad, Harper Collins, 2018 (Canadian edition from Tundra Books)
It’s difficult to do justice to this book, or even to vividly describe it, in a brief blog entry. Kyo Maclear has worked with a number of illustrators. This is her second collaboration with Julie Morstad. Their first was the phenomenally inventive Julia, Child, on which I blogged before. On one level, it is a picture book biography of Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, (1890-1973), best known for her creation of a unique shocking pink color, and for the outrageous lobster dress she designed with Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí.
Actually, her contribution to women’s fashion, expressed in the motto cited in the author and illustrator’s note at the end of the book, was difference. Bloom is the story, as well as the re-creation, of this joyous difference and unbridled creativity.
Fashion designers have been the subject of some picture books. Coco Chanel is popular, probably because her brand is recognizable to parents. (These virtually always skip over the World War II period since she was an outright Nazi collaborator.) There should be more. If artists, musicians, and authors are legitimate subjects for children, then people who design clothing should be, as well. It’s no surprise that these two inspired artists took on Schiaparelli, nor that they have chosen to frame her life story as one about the thrill of creating and the necessity of self-assurance. “Every story starts somewhere.” With this opening sentence, Maclear hooks the reader into Schiaparelli’s autobiography. Even babies think, although we don’t know what form their thoughts take. Here we do:
“One day, I snuggle deep in my
carriage. I am alone. Except for
All around, they are waving
and smiling: HELLO!
All I see is PINK.
Bright, bold, shocking pink!”
Then, in different font, “The color swirls/inside me.” This is Elsa Schiaparelli talking to you from her baby carriage, so listen! While in the hands of another author/illustrator team, this concept might seem affected, here it comes across as part of a natural sequence. If you are that brilliant, you had ideas when you were a baby.
Maclear repeats the theme of Schiaparelli’s consciousness of her own creativity throughout the book. Children will relate well to sentences such as “I am an explorer, a circus/performer, and even the night sky,” as well as “I am growing into an artist.” Each of Morstad’s pictures is, in the words of her subject, “SENSAZIONALE!” Morstad is particularly gifted at capturing each subject’s unique humanity within a specific time or place, whether that is a specific country and historical era, or childhood itself.
On a two-page homage to the Paris, which Hemingway called a moveable feast, she presents some of the greatest artists working in the city: Savlador Dalí, Pau Poiret, Meret Oppenheim, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti. Each full portrait is accompanied by an actual quote from that person’s philosophy. Schiaparelli casually introduces this parade of luminaries:
“Our cold-water apartment is dreary,
but friendship lifts me. Through my pal
Gaby Picabia, I fall in with a pack of artists.”
If you are now thinking that this book is a gimmick, a feast for educated adults in the guise of a book for kids, you should now that a toddler is included in the scene, working on the floor between Picasso’s and Giacometti’s feet. Her artistic statement, placed in quotes to distinguish it from the “real” ones, is “Like this, Picasso.” She is teaching Picasso by drawing a cubist face, or maybe she is commanding him to enjoy her work.
Schiaparelli is presented in many roles in addition to artist, although her dedication to her art is constant. In another picture, she is barefoot, wearing a semi-transparent black sheath. One pencil in hand and the other behind her ear, she, contemplates a wall covered with her sketches, as well as fabric swatches, posters, and pieces of jewelry. She looks down at her baby daughter, Gogo and asks, “Can I do what I love and still provide for Gogo? To be an artist is to dream big and risk failure.” I’m sure that the answer to her question was more complex than the book can answer. For that, you may want to read Meryle Secrest’s biography. The gorgeous design, intricate artwork, and fluent pairing of text and words makes this new book for children, as well as adults, as great a feast as Hemingway’s Paris.